Commentary

Miami Heat not hitting panic button

End of the world as they know it? Not after last season's wild Heat fluctuations

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

HeatJim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesLast season, a blowout loss in Boston would have surely rattled the Heat. This season, not so much.

The scene you expected to see, almost wanted to see, was of a dejected group of Heat players wrestling with the weight of expectations and disappointment after another road loss, this one of the particularly embarrassing variety against a Celtics team it was supposed to have officially vanquished last postseason.

Whether you're a fan or a critic of the team that's less than a month away from an even more pressurized playoffs than it experienced last year, what you anticipated seeing was the 2012 version of the group that supposedly cried after a critical loss last season, or some form of the team that appeared rattled and confused for segments of 2010-11.

What we got was calm optimism.

What we got was boring perspective.

What we got was a group of grown-ups who won't feed into outside persuasions and, more significantly, won't forget what last season taught them.

What we got was Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, arguably the two most passionate players on the team, huddled in the corner of the visiting locker room at TD Garden speaking not of leaky pick-and-roll defense or flawed ball movement or disappointing point guard play.

They were talking about their kids. Two dads who may as well have been at a cookout instead of a losing locker room.

The point is this: Heat players and coaches know the team has its flaws, despite improving a roster that reached the championship round last season. But after an initial season together of dramatic twists, over-the-top storylines and panicky reactions, this team knows a full recovery from an in-season stumble isn't just possible, it's quite probable.

And regardless of what outsiders want to see, the Heat are going to make their adjustments without the stress that captivated the sports world last season.

LJ I've played Boston so many times the last few years that I know what it takes to win, and I know ultimately how you can win. We're just trying to communicate with our starting point guard, understanding how important it is to guard [Rajon] Rondo.

-- Heat forward LeBron James

"It's unacceptable," Chris Bosh said, about as relaxed as anyone could make that statement. "We got smacked down. Nobody likes to lose here."

If we'd all gotten what we wanted, the Heat players would've been complaining about or dissecting any number of recurring issues that were particularly evident in that oh-so-familiar loss to the Celtics.

For starters, there's the defense that once defined them. Instead of turning over or frustrating the older Celtics, the Heat played right into Boston's hands. Or more bluntly, they got played by a determined Rajon Rondo, who had his way with Heat point guards and picked the help defense apart en route to a triple-double.

LeBron James and Mario Chalmers very often act like bickering siblings in games anyway, but Sunday afternoon the two spent more time arguing and waving each other off that you'd think they were bitter enemies forced to play together.

James said the two were regularly discussing how to keep Rondo from "turning the corner" on the pick-and-roll, and clearly the two had a difference of opinion.

"I've played Boston so many times the last few years that I know what it takes to win, and I know ultimately how you can win," James said. "We're just trying to communicate with our starting point guard, understanding how important it is to guard Rondo."

The natural inclination is to say Chalmers is the problem and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should have benched his point guard, who hasn't shot with nearly the same efficiency he did earlier in the season anyway. In fact, Spoelstra probably should've kept both his point guards on the bench for long stretches Sunday, because rookie Norris Cole has been in an extended slump himself, and a backcourt of James and Dwyane Wade always feels like the best solution.

But Spoelstra didn't do that. Nor did James request to defend Rondo.

Not only because this was merely a regular-season game. But because if it was time to make such sweeping alterations to the Heat's overall game plan, it wasn't going to be done just because Rondo was having a great game.

Spoelstra has made adjustments in the past. In fact, last season he often went to that bigger, scarier backcourt of Wade and James and it usually worked to perfection.

But Chalmers also played big in the NBA Finals. So there's a collective faith in that locker room both in Chalmers, but more importantly, in Spoelstra.

That's not something that could've been said with even close to 100 percent certainty in moments of anxiety last season.

"He's a smart man," Bosh said of his head coach.

Surely, he's smart enough to realize that the Heat were essentially playing four-on-five in the halfcourt Sunday because Boston's center, Kevin Garnett, was completely ignoring Miami's starting center, Joel Anthony.

It's a tactic teams use often against Miami, and it often makes people question whether Anthony's defensive abilities are important enough to counteract his offensive ineptitude.

Again, it's an adjustment Spoelstra dealt with last season, specifically in the heart of the playoffs, and did so successfully.

So if it does come time to consider a lineup change with Anthony, or a rotation change that keeps rookie Cole or Chalmers stuck to the bench, this group has no doubt Spoelstra's bold enough to make that move.

"We're not a perfect team, like a lot of teams out there," Spoelstra acknowledged Monday.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireHeat coach Erik Spoelstra had a reason to get upset during the Heat's last loss.

Then there's that other problem the Heat have had of late. The one even a coach can't improve by switching lineups or calling specific plays.

The Heat can't shoot. At least it seems like it at times.

Whether it's Shane Battier or Chalmers or Cole or even Bosh, who had more than his share of badly missed jumpers Sunday, this group occasionally seems like it can't score unless Wade or James is about five feet from the basket.

What makes that even worse for this unit is those missed shots tend to zap the energy from the defense -- the defense that's supposed to be all about energy and turnovers and creating transition opportunities.

It's human nature to let empty offensive trips affect the defensive play, and for this Heat team, that can result in ugly losses like they experienced in Oklahoma City, Indiana and Boston in an eight-day stretch.

"For us, it always kind of flows that way," James said. "When we don't make shots offensively, it kind of hurts our defense, because we don't play to our ability. We don't get fast break points, we're not energetic. We just have to knock down shots and be more confident with it.

"You gotta make shots in this league."

The eventual return of Mike Miller from a sprained ankle could help that cause. So could a string of confidence-building home games down the final stretch of the season, because the Heat tend to do everything significantly better at home this season.

So even that issue hasn't forced this team to display any sign of panic.

James isn't taking subtle jabs at his coach. Bosh isn't demanding to get the ball "where big men get it."

Instead, Bosh is quietly explaining that getting fighting mad in a postgame locker room won't do this team any good, and that nothing it has experienced yet this season even compares to the soap opera that was last season.

And that spectacle resulted in being two games from a championship in their first try together.

Hence the calm, boring, very non-2011 type of reaction from the Heat on Sunday evening.

"There's definitely a string of issues on the road," Spoelstra said after the loss in Boston. "Somehow, some way, together, us in that locker room, we'll figure it out."

It's so humdrum, it's almost mind-numbing.

But this version of the Miami Heat is fine with that.

They plan on solving their issues and patching up their sometimes massive voids -- but they'll do it without entertaining the drama-starved masses.

Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.